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How to make your Canvas course student friendly

Last updated on 8 November 2022
Canvas is the main platform to communicate with your students. What is expected of students? What assignments do they have to do? And what should they prepare? However, students often experience their Canvas courses as a maze. They can't find information or don't know that important news has been shared with them. Let’s improve! With these tips, your students will never again overlook important information in your Canvas course.

A proven feature of effective teaching is maximizing students' learning time. A Canvas course helps with this. If students can immediately find a quick overview of what is expected of them and what they need to prepare, they don’t waste learning time and focus on what really matters. The opposite can be demotivating: if students do not know or cannot find what to do, they become frustrated and demotivated. This negatively affects their study results and well-being. So, setting up a student friendly Canvas course has a lot of impact on your students.

Tip 1: use as little menu options as possible

Many teachers turn on or keep as many Canvas options as possible, even though this doesn’t necessarily add any value to the course. For example, think of menu options like Discussions, Chat, Files and Pages - this is where students get stuck in Canvas' maze. Students often click on all the menu options to find their information because they don't really know what it is. So, the fewer menu options you turn on or leave on, the less likely students will get lost in your Canvas course. Turn on only the most necessary menu options for your course, in most cases three are enough: Home, Announcements and Modules. Assignments, People and Grades can also be useful. But where it often goes wrong is that teachers turn on more options in case students want to use these themselves. Think of Discussions or Chat. But students don't actually use these unless you specifically make it part of the course. Also, a menu option does not have to be visible for students to use it. Assignments and Quizzes can also be linked in Modules, for example.

Tip 2: put all the information in one place

Teachers often distribute information throughout the Canvas course. Documents are added to Files, preparation work is placed on Pages, assignments are under Assignments and an important note or link can be found in one of the many announcements. This can be difficult for students. They do not know exactly which piece of information they are looking for, so they also don’t know which heading to look under. As a result, they have to click on everything to find the information they need and may even overlook important info. Therefore, always put all the required information in one place, like Modules. Modules bundle all the different types of information into a logical structure.

Tip 3: create a logical structure for your students

Just putting all the information in one place is not enough, it also needs a logical structure. And remember: what makes sense to you, may not always make sense to your students. To make sure students don't miss any information, it is best to offer the information in chronological order. What the student needs when, is then neatly listed. Think of Modules organized by week or by contact moment. Put all files, external links, assignments, videos for the week in question under the relevant module. Within a module, you can also structure it with Text headers. For example, you can organize all literature under the Text Header 'Literature'. Finally, think about naming. For example, if you upload a document, it will keep its name. It is better to change the name to something that makes sense to your students.

Tip 4: use the homepage for clarity and a warm welcome

Is the homepage useful? If not, it is better to leave it out. It is best to immediately put the most important things about the course clearly and conveniently on the homepage. In addition, students should feel welcome, as it is their first impression of the course. We have developed a template for the homepage to achieve the best results. The best homepages contain:

  • a link to the course syllabus - this is the most important course document, so it should be visible immediately.
  • the teacher's name and photo - students know who their teacher is immediately and before the lecture. Some teachers even include an introductory video.
  • the teacher's contact info - this way students know how to reach you and feel it is okay to contact you.
  • a welcome text - to make students feel welcome, you can place a welcome text on the homepage or as the first announcement visible on the homepage.

Finally, we recommend choosing the Syllabus as your homepage. This can be set up however you like, and also automatically provides a summary of key course dates at the bottom of the page. That way, nobody misses a deadline anymore!

Tip 5: publish on time

If you would like your students to come to class prepared, you need to give them that opportunity with enough preparation time. Students have side jobs, events, sports activities and other commitments. Good planning is therefore necessary for students. They often have a set time in the week when they prepare for a particular subject. Therefore, always try to publish your Canvas course a week in advance.

Bonus tip: collaborate with colleagues

You can design a good Canvas course, but if your colleagues do not follow suit, Canvas will remain a maze for students. A fixed design for all courses within a programme is therefore best. That way, students know exactly how each Canvas course is put together and don't have to rediscover it for each course. So, above all, try to collaborate with your colleagues. Perhaps they have already designed very clear Canvas courses that you can use as a template or input. Learn from each other.

Watch the Canvas Student Friendly knowledge clip to see what these tips look like in practice.


This teaching tip is provided by VU NT&L.